Advent is a time of preparation – of getting ready for Christmas. What phrase connects a new graduate, saying goodbye to his or her school, with the second Sunday before Christmas? Why is one candle in the Advent wreath always pink? Shall we now take a look at some of the traditions linked to Advent?
Advent, like all weeks in the English calendar, begins on Sunday, but this Sunday marks the start of Christmas preparations in the Western Christian world. It also marks the start of the religious year. Granted, our secular year runs from 1 January to 31 December, but our academic year, for instance, starts on 1 September, so we’re used to having a bit of leeway. And the religious year is the first day of the week, not the month. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. In 2014 the actual date is November 30.
Preparations for Easter always involve 40 fast days (Lent), since Easter is always on a Sunday. But Christmas is linked to a specific date, 25 December, so the duration of Advent – waiting for the arrival of Christ – will vary. If Christmas day comes earlier in the week it will be shorter but it if falls towards the end, Advent gets a bit longer. It is a minimum of 21 and a maximum of 27 days. In 2014 it lasts for 25 days.
Once upon a time in the Middle Ages Advent was a period of fasting much like the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. And people truly did fast, eating less than their fill, and often going completely without meat, right up until Christmas. The Hungarian word for fasting (böjt), is a mystery though. The only thing we seem to know is that it is not Finno-Ugrian (the source of much of Hungarian), is not Iranian (another fountainhead of Hungarian words), and is not German either.
In this period of fasting even Bruin sticks to fish and not meat
In today’s world fasting and abstinence have disappeared and the term we use to describe the waiting is Advent, awaiting an arrival as in the Latin word adventus. Hungarian and English both accent the first syllable, but the “a” sounds differ. The Hungarian sound is more like the “u” in “under, while the English is the “a” in “ad.” In French it is avent [avan] and in German it is Advent with a short “a” sound. Spanish uses adviento, Italian avento, Polish adwent (the “w” here sounds like a “v”) and so on.
Seventh Day Adventists are awaiting the second coming of Christ, meaning the end of the world. Many groups have tried to predict the exact date, with comparatively little success.
The word “ad-vent” consists of two parts. In Latin one only sees the “dv” sequence when the “d” is the concluding sound of a prefix and the “v” is the starting sound of the verb which follows the prefix. “Ad” in Latin is used for “at,” “by” or “against,” and we see it in words such as “adjunct,” (attached to in a supplementary fashion) “adjective,” (an attribute related to a noun) or “adverb” (a modifier of qualities). “Ad” can appear on its own, when borrowing from Latin. Ad1 and Ad2 would translate into “first of all,” and “secondly.” We might also borrow the phrase “ad absurdum,” meaning that something goes on and on to the point when it becomes ridiculous, and English regularly uses the term “ad hoc” such as an ad hoc committee, meaning a committee set up for a single purpose only. “Ad hominem” is used to describe a personal attack as opposed to a debate on ideas.
A “con-vent” is Christian community under monastic vows, and when a meeting is “con-vened,” it is opened. A “con-vention” is a meeting where sometimes “customs” are evolved. When something is “con-venient” it fits in with a person’s needs, in other words, it suits them. “In-vention” concerns a process of creation or a creative ability, while “sub-vention” is a subsidy or a grant of money, a form of support intended to lift one, while “inter-vention” is an action taken to alter a situation, essentially in the middle of a happening. “Pre-vention” is a move to keep it from happening in the first place.
We wouldn’t mind a “lift-up” from this “subvention.”
But suppose we get back of Advent. The wait is of course for the arrival of Jesus Christ, who, tradition has it, was born at the winter solstice in Bethlehem, in a stable (or maybe not), probably a few years BC (“before Christ”). The wicked King Herod died in 4 BC so Christ would have had to have been born before then. The reason for this paradox is that the decision to number the years from Christ’s birth was made in 525 AD (Anno Domini, meaning the Year of our Lord), and they slipped up by a few years in their calculations.
Drop down dew!
Advent, then, is an effort by Christians to repeat the wait for the first coming of Christ. Catholic Churches offer Rorate Mass, with the Rorate Coeli from the Book of Isaiah (Drop down ye heavens from above!) every morning during this season. This mass is held at dawn or early in the morning and requires strong willpower on the part of attendees, given the winter cold and pre-sunrise darkness, before going to work of school. The mass received its name from the Latin phrase Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant justum which translated means: Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just.
The Rorate Mass is sometimes called the Dawn Mass or Angel Mass. The first of these names is self-evident while the second stems from the legend that the Angelic greeting, the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel before the Virgin Many to tell her that the son of God had been conceived within her. The angel greets Mary in Latin with the words “Ave Maria,” inspiring many composers including Gounod, Schubert, and the contemporary composer Regina Spektor.
Rorate, a second person plural imperative verb in Latin, has become a noun. This does happen sometimes. We have the case of the Greek phrase “ Κύριε ἐλέησον,” meaning “Lord have mercy,” becoming twisted into the Latin sounding “kirelejzum,” originally used as a verb, meaning a mild explicative. “Sacrament” is a similar term, altered from a verb into a noun, again serving as a mild explicative. This brings us to the third Sunday of advent, known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means rejoice, and should be known to Hungarian students through the words of a song popularly sung on taking leave of their old schools as they graduate: “Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus,” meaning “We rejoice while we are still young. Gaudete is also an imperative, like Rorate, demanding that all who hear it rejoice. At this time we are only one week removed from Christmas, which is sufficient reason to be joyful. Lilac is the color of Advent. Catholic tradition links this color to penitence, but on Gaudete Sunday the priest wears pink.
This is why the traditional Advent wreath is made up of three lilac candles and one pink one. The candles are lit every Saturday night or Sunday – one candle the first week, two on the second, and so on. On the third week, the week of rejoicing, the pink candle is also lit.
Time to eat chocolate!
For children, we can build up the excitement of anticipation with an Advent calendar. Each day has its own door or shelf, and we set some small gift (generally candy or chocolate) behind each door or on each shelf. The child gets to open the day’s door in the morning, eat the little gift, and count the doors that are still closed to learn how many days there were still to go till Christmas.
.... And give us this day our daily chocolate....
Sadly, St. Nickolas crashes onto the scene during the first week of Advent. Celebrated in Hungary on 6 December, St. Nick inundates the children with chocolate, which renders the daily but modest doses of chocolate hidden in the Advent calendar far less exciting. On the other hand, it would have been tough to reconcile even the small doses of daily chocolate in the calendar with the concept of fasting, something that our grandparents’ generation was perhaps the last to take seriously during Advent.